Sunday, October 25, 2009


Stuffed Animals are fluff to the core
The players in my current campaign learned how to play D&D from me. Except that with the possible exception of Bubu Singe, they play without learning how. I don’t mean that they’re bad players. Rather, instead of trying to understand the rules, they just imagine their characters and say what those characters do. Terms such as “hit points”, “armor class”, and “level” might be familiar to them, but the meaning behind them is non-numerical. They understand that they’ve become tougher through their previous adventures. And they prefer magical armor to regular armor and regular armor to no armor at all, but I’ve never had to explain why finding a shield +1 changes one’s armor class from 2 to 1. Instead I just have to describe the shield. Yes, sometimes I do have to resort to “you can just tell it’s better than your old shield. “

Bubu Singe does have an appreciation for the mechanics, but he has perhaps sensed my ambivalence about them, and maintains a healthy distance. Ambivalence is the right word. There is a part of me that loves the idea that you not only describe, but generate a universe through dice and random tables. Or at least finds the idea compulsively engaging. There’s another part of me that’s learned that what gives me joy about the game is the feeling that I’m generating a universe in communication with other people. I was a little frustrated in some recent games when the players either refused or overlooked the opportunity to do what I expected them to do. Like someone suggests to Tetsukichi that he should go back to the place where his future father-in-law died to retrieve his body and Tetsukichi replies that he doesn’t remember the way. But what followed was hopefully more satisfying, because it was driven by player actions. And strangely, The House of the Lucky Dragon seems more palpably real for being conceived on-the-fly. (I should admit that the Oriental Adventure daily event tables were helpful in “seeding” my imagination.)

When Bubu Singe runs a game, he lets my character pretty much try to do whatever he wants, and when I “get to the edge of the map,” he lets me suggest what’s beyond. Or to give a specific example, once he started a session by saying, “Ok, since last time, you’ve made two friends in the city—what are they like?” And these two—"a priest" and "a young widow"— have developed into key NPCs.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Report: Khanbaliq, The House of the Lucky Dragon

The House of the Lucky Dragon is, in typical modern parlance, a “brothel” in Khanbaliq. Given that Zhou-Dang is based on 13th century China and Zipang is based on a later period in Japan, it’s anachronistic to say that there is prostitution in Zhou-dang and not in Zipang. But that’s what I’m saying. Likewise, my conception of how exactly it works is based more on imagination than research. (The photo is from 1901!)

Saisho learned from some of the other clerks about “The House of the Lucky Dragon,” a place where men with a little money can—for a single night— be a powerful lord with his own concubine, with all the usual privileges. When Saisho first told Gwinch, he was lectured about exploitation and disease. “There’s a reason you know, that they don’t do things like this in Zipang.”

But Gwinch agreed that it be interesting to just go see what’s going on.
Because of the success of Tetsukichi in rescuing Su-Laing, the PCs had been granted the right to leave the “green zone” and visit the “outer city.” Saisho had learned about the Lucky Dragon from some other clerks, who were eager to return. So here’s what happened, in the words of Saisho:

“They call it the outer city, but it’s more like a big village or a sack full of little villages. Country people live there with their horses and other animals. They live in tents and so from one week and the next, everything can change and so the other clerks nearly lost their way. But the Lucky Dragon is rich-looking wooden building with a stone wall and pennants on the roof. The other clerks had some money and so we entered and the warriors gave up their swords and we entered what looked at first like any other tavern. While we ate, the women entertained us—with music, with dancing, and with poetry. There was another one who sold flowers and other presents for us to give to the women who entertained us. And each woman, after her performance, became the companion of the man who had given her the most presents. She sat with him and then he took her away. Where did he take her?
"Gwinch and I slipped out of the celebration room to see where the men took the women. And we saw The House of the Happy Dragon was like the house of a powerful lord with a courtyard and many small houses surrounding it. The women were entertaining us in the reception hall in the main house and for the lucky one whom they favored, each had her one small house to entertain him for the rest of the night. Gwinch asked me to make him invisible so that he could creep into one of the small houses. I did as he asked, but he was clumsy and his robe tore on the latch. Of course this alarmed the woman, and Gwinch retreated.

"When we returned to the celebration room, we learned that Uesugi Kenchu, one of Sato Masoka’s retainers, had been there. I was surprised to learn that the powerful and rich samurai had not taken any woman. It’s true that they were not as beautiful as those we know in Zipang, but it is several months now since we left home.

"When it was time to leave, some of the clerks were in a black mood, for they had spent what little money they had, and yet were going home disappointed. Some suggested that we should have been bolder and bought many gifts for one woman rather than one or two gifts for many women. Some even suggested that we should have shared our money to bring a woman to our table and then drawn lots to see which see who would take to her bed. For myself, I expressed my agreement with Gwinch. This was not a way for honorable men to spend their money.

"Some of us returned the next night. Gwinch, myself, and Hatsu, plus Tetsukichi who had not been with us the first night, returned with the intention of dissuading dishonorable men from their bad habits by cutting their cash strings. I called on the spirits to make us invisible and we entered the House by climbing the wall. Again Gwinch tried and failed to get into one of the women’s houses. And again Uesugi was there and he provided the best entertainment. There was an old man who was interfering with the other men’s enjoyment, adding his own reedy voice to the songs of the women. And the servants of the House asked him to stop, and when he refused, Uesugi demanded that he leave the House. Still the old man refused. When Uesugi drew his sword, I knew that he didn’t intend to return it to its scabbard until the old man’s head was on the floor. But then a strange thing happen. Despite the fierceness in his face, Uesugi’s movements were like a man asleep or a man trying to run in the bath. The old man continued to joke, and only when the guard of the House drew their own weapons did he retreat. He ran into the garden and then over the wall like a cat. Tetsukichi removed 15 taels from Uesugi’s purse.
We followed Uesugi home. Gwinch wanted to know where he lived.

"When we returned the next night, once again invisible, we found that instead of the usual entertainment, the House was hosting a party for a large group of soldiers, the elite guards of Lord Goyat. All the usual women were there plus others I hadn’t seen before. Gwinch found the room where the Master of the House lived—a door with 4 guards standing outside it. With a few drowsy bees, I helped the guards find slumber, and then slipped into the room to confirm Gwinch’s idea. The room inside was rich and there was a powerful-looking man surrounded by women, guards, and piles of money. And then someone noticed the sleeping guards and so we all ran away. It was Gwinch’s turn to be frustrated."

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Report: The Princes' Kingdom / Palace of the Silver Princess

Following previous fun playing The Princes' Kingdom as descibed in my post from a few days ago, I decided to try an experiment, mixing TPK (The Princes' Kingdom!) rules with a favorite D&D module from my own younger days, B3 Palace of the Silver Princess. Additionally, I played with a mixed group of players comprising one human child plus two stuffed animals-- White Bear and Isa.

The human player was very eager for his character to meet and fight monsters. And he was also very cautious about exploring dungeon corridors. Strange smells, the sound of bubbling water, a gust of air that made their torches flicker-- any such phenomenon drew the same response from him: "No, don't go that way." Likewise, he was very particular about walking order-- he was no way going first and he was no way going last. As the game progressed, he revealed that he had a horse. No, make that a god horse, a pegasus. When he went through a door, he got off the horse, went through the door, and then got back on.

We were playing the "green-cover" version. I like the straight-forward "save the princess" objective, especially with kids, and find that the characters themselves can add the variation to make it interesting. But I hope to try the orange-cover version at some point. For those who are curious, it's available at the WotC site . . .

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

game report: The Princes' Kingdom

A cool thing about stuffed animals is that they know a lot of kids. And kids are really good at games because they haven’t yet learned to suspend belief.

And so the idea of playing a game like D&D is also a little scary. Yes, they will learn that much of life is about killing things and taking their stuff, but do you want to be the one to teach them that?

So the other day, with three five-year-olds, I ran a session of “The Prince’s Kingdom,” a game in which players assume the roles of princes (or princesses, as in the case of my game, although the rules are male-biased to a strange degree) who as sons (and daughters) of a good king (and queen, yeah?), need to prepare to rule by visiting remote regions of his realm and fixing the problems they encounter.

In this adventure, the PCs (Prince Capton Rex, his twin brother Prince Obi-wan-kenobi, and their sister Princess Kelo) sailed to a distant island to visit some similarly distant relatives who were supposed to be living in a castle. When they arrived, the relatives—three sisters—were waiting for them at the docks.

As the sisters explained, the family had fallen on hard times. The castle was gone and each of the sisters now lived in her own house.

Each of the sisters invited the visitors to stay at her house. How would the visitors choose?

Era told the visitors that she lots of money. If they stayed with her, she would give them some money and they could buy whatever they wanted. Even a light sabre? Yes, even a light sabre.

Ena told the visitor that she had lots of books. They could read her books and learn anything they wanted to know. Such as how to build a light sabre.

Enu, did not have money or books, but she did have children, a boy and a girl for the visitors the play with.

Here the party split up, with Capton Rex going with Era while Kelo and Obi-wan-kenobi went with Enu.

This is where things really got interesting. Although the players pretty much ignored the “adventure hook” (both Era and Enu explained that she once owned Seven Magic Spoons and extracted a promise from their guest(s) to retrieve them from the ghost castle), they got really into exploring their environment. Kelo taught Enu’s children how to play hopscotch in detail. Capton Rex took his money to town and although he couldn’t buy a light sabre, he did pick up a crown in the shape of a coiled snake with rubies for eyes. He also bought two pies. Obi-won-kenobi met a hungry urchin and tried to enter Era’s house so that he borrow some money from Rex and buy the urchin some food.

And then Kelo’s mother called and she had to go home.

Princess Kleo-- Character Sheet

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

report: Bride for a Fox Part II

On the other side of the gorge, the party followed the trail into a forest thick with webs. Mehwa, despite his urgency, had many wounds, and faltered in his steps. Beatriss suggested he should give them instructions so that—if necessary—they would be able to rescue his daughter without him. He agreed.

They were looking for Dwa, the servant of the one who had stolen his daughter. When they found Dwa— an ugly, craven, and evil being with feet like those of ostrich— they should threaten to destroy his tree. With this threat, they should force him to show them the way. If they did rescue Su-Laing, and returned her to Khanbaliq safely, the family would allow her marriage to Tetsukichi.

Leaving Mehwa behind, the party pushed on. They did meet Dwa, threatened him appropriately, and learned that his master didn’t want Su-Laing for “what you think.” Ignoring the opportunity for thematic development, they pressed him again for an answer to their question—where was Su-Laing? Craven, evil being that he was, Dwa directed the party to “the old tomb,” and called out after them, “But you are too late by now!”

With Dwa’s directions, they found the old tomb. Su-Laing was outside the tomb, dressed as a bride, and crying over the body of the tomb’s guardian. And also there were four dog-sized wolf spiders who attacked with surprise. The party killed them easily, but both Take and Kani were fatally poisoned. Not wanting to wait for Su-Laing’s would-be “husband” to emerge from the tomb, the remainder of the party took their princess and ran.

They returned to Khanbaliq with little difficulty, and met Su-Laing’s relatives. The relatives, of course, had questions. The party had little in the way of answers. “Why did Mehwa ask a group of foreigners to help him find his daughter?” Beatriss: “I never asked. But maybe he knew I’d been on a lot of dangerous adventures.” After some mumbling about an betrothal to one of Mehwa’s fellow warlords and some counter-mumbling about “damaged goods,” the relatives, after expressing some perfunctory grief for Mehwa, eased into a celebratory mood and agreed that Tetsukichi should, after a proper engagement, be allowed to marry Su-Laing.

Note: The past couple session made strong use of “Bride for a Fox,” an adventure written by Craig Barrett for Dungeon magazine in Jan/Feb 1991. That’s right, I’ve held this for almost 20 years. White Bear called this one of the funnest games she’s ever played. What she liked, I think is the fast pace, and the clear goal. As written, the adventure is much more complex than as played. But maintaining the prescribed plot required a lot of goal-post-shifting that I don’t like to do. Like bringing in more monsters, and adjusting when the assassins would catch up with Mehwa. The gorge appealed to me as both realistic and dramatic. And since there seemed to be no reason why the assassins would waste time or arrows on anyone but their target, taking him out—especially after he was isolated on the south side of the bridge— was relatively easy. (Maybe I should have considered morale, however, once he started using his ring?) With Mehwa dead, the plot was considerably simplified. Furthermore, in the interrogation of Dwa, I couldn’t use the boxed text in which Mehwa, asks a bunch of tangential questions that might have helped crystallize the background story, but wouldn’t advance in the interests of any of the characters (PC or NPC) in the adventure. Plot-based adventures are criticized for the way they force PCs to act in a certain way. But such instructions are easy to ignore. My problem with plot-based adventures might be that in their construction, they devote a lot of time and words to elements that will only be of interest to the DM. I hesitate to apply this criticism to “Bride for a Fox,” however, because the players really did seem to enjoy the classic drama of fighting a series of monsters to rescue a damsel in distress.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Bride for a Fox Part I

When Tetsukichi next returned to the Forbidden City, he met Kei-lo and asked after Ikhbayar, ready to give a few a few words of wisdom to the over-brave guardsman. But it was too late. Kei-lo had not seen him since that morning, and he had not reported to his guardstation that evening. Kei-lo expected the worse. Reclining by the fireside in his lady’s chamber, Tetsukichi asked Su-Laing what she knew about her Kei-lo and Ikhbayar. Nothing, and why was he so interested? Nothing, nothing—he let the matter drop.

[And this, of course, was supposed to be the adventure hook. As was the insulting poetry that failed to rouse either Beatriss or Gwinch to action. And the general mystery regarding the ruins of the old city. So, instead . . . ]

The next morning, while taking their breakfast, Beatriss and Tetsukichi were visited by one Meng, servnt of Teh Mewha, the father of Su-laing. Teh Mewha had a problem and he required their help. A slave girl, the personal servant to his daughter had gone missing and they needed to find her. As they prepared for their mission, the PCs learned that in fact it was not Kei-lo, but Su-Laing herself who was missing. And that Teh Mehwa, with a few of his guards had already left to find her, accompanied by Kei-lo.

For a few hours, the PCs— Tetsukichi with his companion Hatsu; Beatriss with her companions Kani and Take (all bushi/fighters), and led by Meng set off across the plains west of Khanbaliq, following the path of Teh Mehwa. Along the way, they were harassed by “bird-men,” and encountered one of the Mehwa’s guards who had been mortally wounded by these creatures. As the trail rose from the plains to the rolling hills, they caught up to Mehwa, together with his three guards and Kei-lo, dressed in bridal silks.

Mehwa lead the larger party further west until they reached a gorge spanned by a rope bridge. Because of the PCs reluctance to expose themselves to such predictable danger, one of the Mehwa’s guards crossed the bridge first, and was attacked on the other side by long-clawed, shaggy-furred beastmen. While the rest of the party assailed the beastmen with arrows, the other two guardsmen crossed the bridge to aid their comrade. The beastmen were strong opponents. After one of the Mewha’s guardsmen fell, Beatriss, Take, and Kani crossed the bridge to assist the remaining two. Meanwhile more beastmen spilled out of surrounding forest.
And just as the battle was turning in the party’s favor (several beastmen dead, but also all three guardsmen), new attackers appeared from behind them (the “safe” side of the bridge). These attackers were ten men with bows who seemed intent on killing Mehwa. Meng, meanwhile pulled out his handaxe and began chopping at the rope bridge, ostensibly to prevent the beastmen from crossing over. But by this time, the beastmen looked less dangerous than archer-men, and so Tetsukichi and Hatsu, both rather casual subscribers to the bushido code of bravery, crossed to the other side. Mehwa used his magic ring to call lightning on his assassins.

On the one side of the bridge, the PCs killed or drove off the beastmen while Mehwa killed off the archers. Meng, after proving his traitorous intent by taking at swing with his axe at Mehwa, fled on one of the horses. Mehwa crossed the bridge. Kani went back to get Kei-lo, who was too afraid of heights to cross on her own.
Though nearly dead, Mehwa insisted that the party press on. His daughter was in danger.

Friday, October 16, 2009

report: Khanbaliq

The PCs and their companions depart from Zipang to the Empire of Zhou Dang, specifically the new capital of Khanbaliq, still being constructed by Kam Kobra, the conquering emperor from the Horselands. The PCs are part of a diplomatic mission—mainly samurai of disfavored houses, plus a few other adventuring-types like themselves. Most of the other diplomats regard the assignment as a significant punishment, not only for the danger in their hostage-like status should the two countries go to war, but also for everything they’re missing at home. Separated from their lands, their families, and the centers of power in Zipang, they know they are losing wealth and influence back home. Finally, restricted in their movement to a lavish, but small part of the city, it’s a little boring.

One source of amusement involves posting insulting poems about each other in hopes of goading a rival family into doing something rash. Tetsukichi, however, is a bit more ambitious, and begins a love affair with Su-Laing, the daughter of Mehwa one of the Kam Kobra’s chief warlords. In the course of several secret meetings with Su-Laing, Tetsukichi gets to know her lady-in-waiting who is named Kei-lo, and needs Tetsukichi’s assistance.

who is on my roof?

Kei-lo, like her ladyship, has a “special friend” who is strong and brave and handsome. And poor. Despite his swagger and the bells on his boots, Ikhbayar the guardsman cannot afford to marry Kei-lo the lady-in-waiting, who is technically Mehwa’s slave. Ikhbayar is starting to think of doing something desperate.

Khanbaliq, the PCs have learned, is built on the ruins of another city (destroyed by Kam Kobra’s grandfather). In the ruins of the older city, in the floodplain between the new city and the river, a few buildings still stand more-or-less intact, including the house of a very rich and evil lord, and rumored to still hold his exotic treasures. And so, reasons Ikhbayar, what better way to die than in pursuit of happiness for himself and the one he loves? He will not listen to Kei-lo’s protests and over the past few days has stopped sharing his plans with Kei-lo, a sign for her, that he has resolved to put them in action.

And so, begging forgiveness for her over-familiarity, the lady-in-waiting requests that Tetsukichi might agree to counsel her suitor, to recommend a compromise like the one Tetsukichi has chosen in trysting with a princess whom he cannot hope to have by way of a legal and honorable union. And Tetsukichi agrees that yes, the next time he visits Su-Laing, he will do his best to advise Ikhbayar against burglarizing the houses of lost souls.

Despite his discretion, Tetsukichi’s dalliance is becoming an open secret among the diplomats from Zipang. His companion Hatsu, without betraying any particular knowledge, reminds him that were any one of them to insult their hosts, the entire mission might pay for it with their honor or their lives.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

my campaign: Zipang and Zhou-Dang

battle of Mt. Sodabata

A friend of mine has suggested that there's nothing more boring to listen to than what someone else dreamed about last night. A close second might someone else's D&D campaign. It's interesting to the people making it up-- both referee and players-- but not to a passive audience. And the more "alive" the game-- that is the more it’s shaped by in-game decisions, the less it will resemble a polished story composed to engage and delight an unknown reader.

(Everyone, however, loves an apology, right? Especially when the apology precedes the injury.)

The events of my campaign currently take place in Zipang and Zhou-dang, rough analogues of feudal Japan and 13th-century China. Mainly my sources are wikipedia and various TSR products, so I'm not burdened with too many historical details to get right.

The main Player Characters include:

Gwinch, a visitor from "Alyan" (kind of a low-fantasy version of Middle Earth-- elves are important, but kind of in-inte-background). Since his arrival in Zipang, he has become a dual-class character and is now a 6th level sohei with a few ranger-like abilities from his former life. Gwinch is played by Bubu Singe.

Beatriss, an involuntary visitor, orginally from Cynadecia (B4, The Lost City). A former Warrior Maiden of Madarua, she has continued to progress as a standard D&D fighter and is 8th level. Beatriss is played by White Bear.

Kishi, a native of Zipang. She is a 4th-level wu jen (not so different form a magic-user), and an advisor to Sato Masako of the Seven Swords Clan. Kishi is played by Red Bear (picture soon).

Tetsukichi, also a native of Zipang. He is a 4th-level bushi (a fighter, really) and also a retainer of Sato Masako. Tetsukichi is played by Isa Girl Monkey.

The PCs have run through a couple TSR-published adventures-- "OA1 Swords of the Daimyo" and "OA2 Night of the Seven Swords.” While protecting the villagers in OA1, the PCs made the acquaintance of Sato Masako and "the Blackbird," a shape-changer. While the PCs maintained conflicting loyalties to each of these powerful figures over the course of several adventures, recent events forced a significant choice.

Sato asked them to retrieve the set of antique swords from which his family derived their name. And they did retrieve the swords, but then rather than hand them over to Sato, decided he was arrogant, power-hungry, and ungrateful-- and killed him. They took refuge at the Black Temple and gave the swords to the Blackbird.

The PCs and their companions fought off one attack by Sato Masako’s brothers and their followers, and began to prepare for life as outlaws as enemies of the Seven Swords Clan.

Defeat of the Samurai at the Black Temple

But then, they discovered that while they had made some enemies among those families allied to the Emperor (to wom the Seven Swords clan was distantly related) they had also made some powerful new friends among those families whose most immediate loyalty was to the Shogun. There are plenty of people in Zipang who were really glad to see the Seven Swords Clan take a fall. And some of these new friends convinced the PCs that their best opportunity for immediate safety and future importance lay in breaking ties with the Blackbird and joining a diplomatic mission to the empire of Zhou-dang.

Monday, October 12, 2009

we are watu wa adventcha

This blog is about playing D&D. For reasons that I might go into later, the other people I play D&D with are stuffed animals. (I am human.) Any insights about "playing D&D with stuffed animals" as opposed to simply "playing D&D" will be mainly for the reader to surmise.
DSCN7701White Bear
Isa-Girl-MonkeyIsa Girl Monkey
Bubu SingeBubu Singe